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Blog • 14.11.19

Long-term sickness absence

Kate L
HR Consultant

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Long-term sickness absence is usually defined as a period of continuous absence of more than four weeks.

The absence may be due to:

  • an unexpected illness
  • a chronic condition
  • an accident or planned operation

As an employer, you must take care to manage the situation sensitively and supportively.

When an employee is off sick for a long time, it can often feel like you’re walking a tightrope as an employer.

On the one hand, you recognise that your employee is unwell, and you sympathise with them.

On the other hand, sick leave can place a significant financial burden on a small business. It’s often difficult to cover the absent employee’s work, placing an additional burden on other employees, and it can negatively impact your ability to run your business.

What we often see, particularly in small businesses, is that the strain of an employee on long-term sick leads to rash decisions being made, which, in some cases, can lead to costly disability discrimination claims.

In this post we’ll cover:

How to manage long-term sickness absence

The procedure for managing long-term absence is similar to managing regular repetitions of short-term absence, but you will likely need to take a more sensitive approach.

Step 1: Hold a formal stage 1 absence meeting

If your employee has been off for more than 4 weeks and there are no plans for an imminent return, you should invite them to a formal stage 1 absence meeting.

Try to be flexible by offering to hold the meeting at their home and with a family member present or in a neutral location with a work colleague/friend if they wish.

As this is a formal meeting, appropriate notice should be given to the employee and they should be offered the right to be accompanied.

In this meeting you should:

  • Try to gain an understanding of the condition and how it impacts the employee’s ability to work.
  • Discuss what reasonable adjustments can be made to remove barriers to returning to work.

Step 2: Take notes during the meeting

As with all formal employment meetings, notes should be taken at the meeting and the discussion. This is essential evidence should you need to prove that you have followed a fair process.

Step 3: Follow up in writing

Keep a copy of the notes for your records and send a copy to the employee.

Step 4: Document the business impact of the employee’s absence

Create a written record of the impact the employee’s continued absence is having on your business both financially, and with regards to other members of staff. For example, you might now have to pay for additional resource or there is insufficient absence cover.

Step 5: Consult with health care professionals

Try to obtain consent from the individual to gather further medical information from the employee’s GP or an occupational health provider to help you assess how long the absence could last and any adjustments you might be able to make to support the employee’s eventual return to work

Step 7: Hold a stage 2 absence meeting

If the employee remains off work for a further month, consider a second formal meeting.

This should follow the same format as a stage 1 meeting, only you should now have additional information, and can review any actions taken following the stage 1 meeting.

You can continue to hold these formal sickness absence meetings for the duration of the absence to keep updated on the employee’s progress until they return.

Step 8: Hold a final formal meeting

If the employee is still absent, and the medical information still doesn’t provide an imminent return to work date, then you can consider inviting the employee to a final meeting at which you consider whether or not to terminate employment on health grounds.

Dismissing an employee on long-term sick

If it looks unlikely that the employee will be able to return to work in the foreseeable future; you have sought medical advice confirming this and there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made to assist a return to work, it may be appropriate to undertake a final review to consider whether you need to end the employment as a result of ill health.

This is a very tricky and sensitive issue, however, and a capability dismissal on grounds of ill-health should always be a last resort. There is no one-size-fits-all time frame as to what would be considered reasonable before dismissing an employee on long term sick. It very much depends on the condition, role and impact the absence is having on the business. As such, it’s strongly recommended to seek advice from an HR expert to ensure you have taken suitable steps to protect yourself from any risks associated with ill health dismissal.

Employee returning to work after long-term sickness

If an employee has been absent from work for a while, they may benefit from a phased return to work that allows them to return to their full hours and duties more gradually. Often their GP or occupational health professional will advise if this might be necessary.

On the first day of the employee’s return, you should hold a return to work meeting to confirm any details that may have been agreed with regards to reasonable adjustments and discuss any concerns they might have on returning to work. This will help them to feel more supported in their return, minimising the anxiety they may be feeling after a significant amount of time away.

Long-term sick pay

Employees are entitled to a minimum of £94.25 per week in Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), for a period of up to 28 weeks.

To qualify for SSP, the employee must have carried out work for you, have been ill for at least 4 days in a row (including non-working days) and earn an average of at least £118 per week.

You cannot pay your staff less than the statutory amount of sick pay, but you can pay them more if a greater amount is stated in their employment contract.

Long-term sickness and employment rights

While an employee on long-term sick can be particularly challenging for a business, there’s considerable employment law in place to prevent employers discriminating against employees.

The key pieces of legislation to bear in mind when managing long term ill health are:

  • the Employment Rights Act 1996, which deals with termination of employment on ill-health grounds
  • the Equality Act 2010, which covers disability as well as other forms of discrimination.

The Equality Act places obligations upon the employer to make “reasonable adjustments” for staff who have a disability or long-term health condition, in order to enable them to return to work and to carry out their job.

Long-term sickness: Things to avoid

When managing a long-term sickness absence, you should make sure you don’t:

  • Be too hasty in reaching your final decision: Remember your process needs to be fair. Any failure to act reasonably could leave you facing a costly unfair dismissal and/or discrimination claim
  • Make your employee feel guilty or approach the situation without empathy
  • Pre-judge the procedure outcome – the purpose of following a formal procedure and having regular meetings is to listen to your employee and consider anything new they have to say, even if what they say will require you to investigate further or obtain new medical evidence
  • Assume that the adverse impact on your business is caused by the employee’s absence is “obvious” and doesn’t need spelling out in detail

The content of this blog is for general information only. Please don’t rely on it as legal or other professional advice as that is not what we intend. You can find more detail on this in our Terms of Website Use. If you require professional advice, please get in touch.

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